Here’s a shocker: An Atlantic City gambling consultant hired by the Legislature to study the future of Maine’s casino industry says we’re ripe for at least one more casino. Maybe even two!

“We believe there is additional capacity for casino gaming in Maine as part of an integrated dining and entertainment offering, consistent with its existing brand and image,” declares WhiteSand Gaming at the top of a $110,000 report just submitted to the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. The committee, which oversees all things casino in Maine, will gather Wednesday to digest the 138-page document.

In some ways, the report plows new ground when it comes to corralling Maine’s casino market: Rather than react to casino proposals one by one as they pop up like whack-a-moles, WhiteSand recommends a competitive bid process for a bigger and better casino complex somewhere along the southern Maine beaches. If we’re game, it adds, we might also want to consider a smaller casino near Maine’s northern border with Canada.

The report also suggests that all Maine casinos pay the same tax rate of 35 percent of net income on slots and 16 percent of net on table games. Assuming a new casino sprouts somewhere in southern York County, the firm projects, that formula would raise Maine’s overall annual casino take from $53.2 million in 2013 to $67 million.

But before we get all giddy over another 14 million bucks, let’s consider the source of this slam-dunk recommendation.

WhiteSand, which not only consults on casinos but also boasts of its expertise in building and running them, was hired by the Legislature last spring to produce its market analysis after a state study commission charged with the same task bickered itself to death late last year.

In other words, our consultant from Atlantic City (where casinos are currently dropping like sand flies) is also an industry cheerleader. And while WhiteSand goes to great lengths to explain how a new casino is a sure bet for Maine, you can’t read the report without hearing echoes of promises made and never kept.

Remember back in 2010 when Maine voters narrowly approved the citizens initiative that paved the way for the Oxford Casino? Leading up to the vote, proponents vowed repeatedly that the facility would be 100 percent Maine-owned.

They also promised a multi-phase development plan encompassing not just the casino, but a “four-season resort” replete with a 200-room hotel and conference center, a snazzy spa, an RV park, restaurants to die for …

It took only about a year for those Maine-based owners, Black Bear Entertainment, to sell out to gambling behemoth Churchill Downs Inc. of Kentucky.

And the resort? Well, here’s how WhiteSand describes what by now was supposed to be a western Maine miracle: “The Oxford Casino offers the minimum in terms of facilities required for a gaming operation. Featuring a multitude of games, both slot machines and tables, the facility lacks anything beyond a two-meal restaurant and sandwich bar.”

As for Maine’s other casino in Bangor, WhiteSand opines, “The Hollywood Casino, although featuring additional amenities including hotel and expanded food and beverage offerings, lacks a ‘sense of place,’ so although it supports other activities, it does so in a non-distinct way that could be improved upon.”

Funny, that’s not what the flashy TV ads say.

Flipping through the WhiteSand report, it’s hard not to get the feeling that it’s more sales pitch – and a casino industry-friendly one at that – than unbiased research.

At some points, the report emphasizes that by putting the new casino just off Interstate 95 in extreme southern Maine, the gravitational pull on gamblers in New Hampshire and northeast Massachusetts will be irresistible.

At other points, however, WhiteSand pooh-poohs the notion that several proposed casinos in those very locations (WhiteSand also has worked for the state of New Hampshire) might draw customers away from the Maine location.

“This conclusion is based largely on the distance between the major population centers in New Hampshire and a southernmost Maine location which approximates 140 miles,” the report states.

Say what? The last time I checked, New Hampshire’s three biggest cities – Manchester, Nashua and Concord – were all well within 70 miles of the coastal town of York. (I’d have picked Kittery, but its residents already banned any and all casinos in their community.)

WhiteSand also advises Maine to ease up on license fees that in other states routinely run into the tens of millions of dollars. (Oxford Casino, which took in just over $70 million last year, paid a paltry $225,000 for its initial license. Hollywood Casino paid only $200,000 for a license that last year brought in just over $50 million.)

WhiteSand recommends Maine cap the license fee at $5 million and at the same time require the casino developer to invest $250 million over five years in hotels, restaurants and other non-gambling enhancements.

“In our experience potential operators approach any license opportunity with a finite ‘bucket’ of funds corresponding to their perception of the value of the opportunity,” the report states. “When a jurisdiction sets a high license fee, especially as markets approach saturation, the residual in the bucket is smaller and, as a result, the likelihood of larger scale development diminishes.”

Sounds impressive. But if lower license fees beget more “larger scale development,” then how does WhiteSand explain the fact that Oxford Casino paid next to nothing for its license and still bailed on its development plan the minute it squeaked through a statewide referendum?

“Promises made, promises not delivered. That’s the sour taste that, whenever you’re dealing with gaming entities, you’re going to get,” said Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, whose district was supposed to rise significantly on Oxford Casino’s economic tide.

Patrick, a member of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee, said in an interview Friday that he’ll strive to keep an open mind when WhiteSand presents its report Wednesday.

Still, Patrick can’t shake the feeling that the report vastly understates the 20 percent “cannibalization” effect a southern Maine casino would have on Oxford. Whenever he takes a quick detour off Route 26 to cruise through the Oxford Casino parking lot (which he does often), Patrick is struck by the number of Massachusetts and New Hampshire license plates – almost all of which pass right through southern Maine en route to Oxford.

Sen. John Tuttle, D-Sanford, co-chairs the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. An avid supporter of Maine’s ever-declining harness racing industry, he’ll head into this week’s hearing with an eye toward strengthening the subsidy the slots now provide to the horses.

“Preserving harness racing should be paramount,” Tuttle said on Friday.

Good luck with that, senator. The way the Atlantic City experts see it, “Whether or not it is in the overall public interest for any state to attempt in essence to reverse the decline in the popularity of horse racing is open to debate.”

Many would agree with that.

But equally debatable, before we get fooled again, is Maine’s need for another casino.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]

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